Since my last post I have left Auckland and am heading toward Wellington on a bus. If you’re in the area, just look for the big, bouncing orange bus with ‘Stray’ emblazoned on the side. I say ‘bouncing’ as the shocks on this old girl leave something to be desired and I’m sitting well behind the rear wheels.
I didn’t firm up my New Zealand travel plans until December 24 when I noticed a poster in the window of a Sydney travel agency that caters to backpackers and student travelers. It was a few minutes before 4:00 p.m. and the staff were cleaning off their desks and preparing to close for the Christmas holidays. I was impressed that one of the agents came out to the sidewalk to chat with me while the others pretended not to see me peering through the window. Perhaps they thought I was a father waiting to pick up one of the university-aged staff. Richard introduced himself with confidence. He was 20 and this was his first job. I asked if he had made his quota for the year. He didn’t reply in words but I knew the answer by the way he sheepishly glanced at his feet for a few seconds before changing the subject.
After I quizzed him on a few details of the Stray hop-on, hop-off bus pass – none that he was able to answer, by the way – he likely sensed that I was about to walk. His last valiant attempt to get me to sign on the dotted line was something like, “We get a few really old people like you on these buses. I’m sure you’ll find somebody to talk to.”
And by “really old” he meant 35+. Not that it mattered, though. I spent three months travelling through Peru, Bolivia, Argentina and Brazil in similar style and without exception I was the oldest person on the bus every single day. Every. Single. Day. I did meet one woman who said she was 46 (but likely 50) and that’s the record. For a few seconds I thought we had a senior joining the group in Huacachina, Peru but it was a false alarm. I never did figure out why the 25-year-old Dutch guy was wearing the surest sign of a traveling senior – the Tilley hat – but I would bet it was a gift from Grandpa.
I doubt that Richard was using reverse psychology to close me on the backpacker bus pass but if he was, it worked. In truth I was longing to get back on a bus with a group of people who were just like me – eager to see and do as many new things as possible in whatever amount of time they had, no matter what their age.
I’ll be with this particular group for seven days as we make our way from Auckland to Wellington. I’ve had locals tell me that it’s a 7-1/2 hour drive (650km) and even if you dawdle, two days would be plenty of time. Stray takes the better part of seven days to cover this route. True to the name, we will ‘stray’ off the beaten path. That’s exactly what I’m looking for, and doing it with a fun-loving group of people is a bonus.
I’ll stay four nights in Wellington before taking a train back to Auckland to meet my nephew Andy who is making his way to Australia where he’ll be Best Man at a friend’s wedding. We’ll have five days to do a Hamilton Boys road trip out of Auckland before Andy heads to Sydney and I take the train or bus back to Wellington. I’ll then hook up with a new Stray bus and spend 18 days touring the South Island before I fly back to Sydney. I don’t have firm plans for traveling around and eventually on from Australia but don’t tell that to Australian Immigration. But first, let the Stray tour of New Zealand begin.